Honda recently announced that it would begin leasing its EV-neo electric scooter in Japan beginning in December 2010. Initially available mainly to delivery businesses, the EV-neo will not, unfortunately, be offered in the United States. Despite their popularity around the world, ebikes and escooters like the EV-neo have yet to make many inroads in the U.S. But why not?
As we profiled gas and electric bicycles in episode 4.2 of Translogic, we were reminded of low-speed charm of city bikes. You don't have to go fast in order to get high on speed, after all.

As far as electrics are concerned, it would seem that for urban dwellers and those with short commutes, these sorts of vehicles make perfect sense. And with gas prices approaching $3 a gallon, shouldn't Americans be eager to embrace this mode of transportation?

Ebikes Around the World

In the rest of the world, ebikes and escooters have been popular for years. "In China, sales of ebikes in 2009 were around 21 million," said Dr. Frank Jamerson, publisher of the Electric Bikes Worldwide Report. "In Europe, sales last year were approximately 750,000, and in Southeast Asia, around 400,000. In the United States, however, sales were about 150,000."

Jamerson has had a longstanding interest in electric vehicles: From 1990 to 1993, he was the assistant program manager on the EV1, GM's ill-fated foray into electric vehicles. Today, he is retired but continues to monitor the growing global market of electric two-wheelers. Jamerson believes the U.S. market is ready to grow. "The technology for ebikes has really improved in the last few years, making them more palatable for U.S. consumers," he stated.

Ebikes in the United States

Despite the small percentage of the global market, there are a number of companies that offer ebikes and escooters here in the U.S. Currie Technologies found its first real success in the market with its Phat Flyer, an electric mini-scooter it introduced in 2000. "The Phat Flyer was incredibly popular at the time," said Larry Pizzi, president of Currie Technologies. "Improved and upgraded over the years, it continues to sell well around the world." Today, Currie Technologies markets a wide range of ebikes and mini-escooters under the Izip and Ezip brands.

Selling ebikes in the United States, however, poses its challenges. "The first hurdle is finding a distribution channel," said Pizzi. "That leads to the next issue, which is that ebikes are counterintuitive to the traditional bike retailer." According to Pizzi, U.S. bike retailers are accustomed to selling bikes for recreation, fitness, and sport rather than for transportation. "Selling bikes for transportation ranks as fourth or fifth on the list," Pizzi explained.

By contrast, in countries such as China and Europe where ebikes have seen explosive growth, bikes are viewed primarily as transportation rather than recreation. "Europeans have embraced ebike technology," said Pizzi. "Last year in the Netherlands, for example, twenty-five percent of all bikes sold were ebikes."

Ebikes from Currie Technologies are available at Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and directly on the Internet. With prices ranging from $499 (the Ezip Trailz) to $3,499 (the Izip Express) and many models in between, Currie Technologies offers an ebike to meet every intention. "Whether it's aging boomers or people looking for a viable alternative to a car, we offer a function-specific ebike," Pizzi said.

Sanyo Makes the Scene

A longtime purveyor of consumer electronics, Sanyo is entering the ebike market with its Synergetic Hybrid Bicycle. "This represents a return to our roots," said Aaron Fowles, a spokesperson for Sanyo. "The first product Sanyo sold in 1947 was a bicycle generator lamp headlight."

The technology has advanced considerably since then. With a lithium-ion battery pack, a torque-sensing power management controller, and three-speed transmission, riders can propel the ebike under their own power or can engage the bike's motor to assist pedaling in one of three modes. The motor only assists, however, when the rider is pedaling; the bike cannot run on battery power alone.

With a price of $2,299, Sanyo's Synergetic Hybrid Bicycle is available online (http://us.sanyo.com/SANYO-Store); at forty Best Buy locations across California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Florida, and Illinois; and at a number of independent bike dealers across the nation.

The Ferrari of Ebikes

At the top of the ebike food chain is Optibike, founded by Jim Turner and based in Boulder, Colo. Turner, an ex-Ford engineer, went into the ebike business after being disillusioned by life at the Big Three. A semiconductor engineer by trade, when he couldn't find the motors or controllers he wanted for his bike, he designed and manufactured his own. "Aside from standard bike components like forks and brakes and the batteries, we design and manufacture everything ourselves," said Turner. "I don't like building mediocrity."

That commitment to quality doesn't come cheaply. The entry-level Optibike, the USV Commuter, starts at $5,995; the top-of-the line 850R comes in at $11,995. For that sort of coin, you get a whole lot of technology: Monocoque frame, hydraulic disc brakes, Kevlar-reinforced tires, a 22-ampere-hour lithium-ion battery (the largest available in any electric bike), independent front and rear suspension, and a 14-speed Rohloff speedhub.

For Turner, the most exciting aspect of the ebike phenomenon is the health benefits they offer riders. "I have at least a dozen customers who have lost between thirty to forty pounds riding their Optibike," said Turner. "It's possible to turn a commute into quality time. With an ebike, riders don't have to get all hot and sweaty to enjoy the exercise benefits of biking."

What's Next for Ebikes in the U.S.?

Dr. Jamerson estimates U.S. sales will hit 500,000 by 2012, but still a fraction of the 29.1 million bikes he predicts globally. "Americans are car crazy and reluctant to give up that luxury," he said. Still, he remains convinced that there is potential for more growth in the U.S. market. "Ebikes are clean and green, and who knows, if people get turned off by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or if gas prices spike again, ebikes could really take off here."

*Contingent on Rider Weight, Rider Input and Terrain